Say what you want about the Heartless Bastards, but don’t deny Erika Wennerstrom’s vocal talent. As the only consistent member in the band’s ever-changing lineup, Erika’s masterful singing never fails to enrapture. And don’t let the name of the band fool you – these bastards are in fact full of heart. The band’s fourth release, Arrow, is firmly rooted in southern blues rock – gritty yet sentimental. Also their debut from Partisan Records, the album falls short lyrically. But its stripped- down instrumentation showcases Erika’s voice, and that’s enough to guide any music fan through the ten songs.
Since their inception, the Bastards have experimented with classic foundations. 2005’s Stairs and Elevators does not contain anything contradictory to the band’s name. Chock full of repetitive guitar riffs and rock ‘n’ roll attitude, the album gravitates towards something you might hear from the garages of budding rockers worldwide – in a good way. But sometime between their debut and 2006’s All This Time, the quartet decided to trade in their raw garage sensibilities for a more sophisticated musicianship. Their compositions became more melodic and their guitar solos more intricate. The innovations flourished in 2009’s The Mountain. Heavily inspired by bluegrass, the banjos, fiddles, and peddle steels give the album a distinct country flavor. It left some Bastard fans, myself included, nonplussed and wistful for the old aesthetic.
Unfortunately, Arrow doesn’t quite hit the mark, although it is an improvement. Songs meant to be profound are instead water- downed by sub par lyrics. In the opening track “Marathon”, Erika engages a series of metaphors about life – it is apparently a “long race home.” She sings “into another fork in the road / that’s where we decided to part.” These generic clichés are not in comparison with the pretty instrumentation. “Got To Have Rock And Roll”, as the name suggests, is a cheesy endorsement and one that fans do not need to hear for the umpteenth time. Less is more for this band; the stronger songs have minimalistic lyrics which eloquently reflect the import conveyed through sounds. “Only For You”, my immediate favorite from the first listen, is exhilarating in terms of Erika’s vocal range. Accompanied by only two guitars and some easygoing drumming, Erika fluidly travels up and down different registers. It is a song tangentially influenced by southern rock, artistically expanding on the blues element but (thankfully) ditching the Lynard Skynard guitar licks.
Garage, folk, country, blues – throughout the Heartless Bastard’s career, all these genres have been incorporated with mixed results. Rather than evolving a sound, the Bastards seem to be searching for one. Arrow has the potential to become something better if the Bastards decide to tread the path they’re on. Rarely does a significant turn in a band’s sound immediately render a masterpiece, after all. Maybe one day Erika will find a stable lineup and get down to tapping the band’s full potential. Until then, we’ll have to settle for a hit-or-miss band with a lead singer whose voice sometimes outshines the compositions.